SPIRITUAL CANTICLE:KEY THEMES 8: Appreciation of the world

 

John loved the beauty of the world, enjoyed time alone in the cave in Segovia, loved to take his friars for walks at El Calvario, and saw beauty all around him in Granada. He was a man of sacrifice and detachment who also appreciated the world around him. “If you purify your soul of attachments and desires, you will understand things spiritually. If you deny your appetite for them, you will enjoy their truth, understanding what is certain in them” (S. 49). When you view the world through a different lens, everything changes. For John love made him see everything in a new way, in a real way. In the early part of the journey creatures are means but insufficient to lead to God, and one must detach oneself from everything. However, in the ascetical phase of the journey “the consideration of creatures is first in order after the exercise of self-knowledge” (C. 4.1) for it helps us appreciate the greatness of God’s love and generosity in creation, and this awakens our love for God (C. 4.1,3). “Only the hand of God, her Beloved, was able to create this diversity and grandeur” (C. 4.3). But the bride feels overwhelmed with love for her Beloved as she sees traces of his presence in creatures, and she becomes “anxious to see the invisible beauty that caused this visible beauty” (C. 6.1).

The view from John's monastery in Segovia

The view from John’s monastery in Segovia

Later, in God all is transformed and one can return to the beauty of everything in God, for all the world now speaks of the presence of the Beloved. John includes the whole cosmos in his loving appreciation: “woods” are the basic elements of the universe, “thickets” refer to the teaming of animals, “green meadows” are the stars and planets, and “flowers” are angels and saintly souls (C. v.4). One of the results of spiritual betrothal is that “In that nocturnal tranquility and silence and in the knowledge of the divine light the soul becomes aware of Wisdom’s wonderful harmony and sequence in the variety of her creatures and works” (C. 14-15.25). It is interesting that John changes tense from “created” to “carry on,” from past tense to present, for God is still working now, manifesting his glory through creation all around us (C. 4.3).

A modern interpretation of John of the Cross on display in the museum in Ubeda where John died

A modern interpretation of John of the Cross on display in the museum in Ubeda where John died

John is always showing us how to discover openings into the inner world of God’s love. One author suggests that the Spiritual Canticle represents “a reordering of the cosmos, a world made new,” and as we read the Spiritual Canticle “we begin to see that world differently and sense something of its beauty and wonder.”32 Creation is now an efficacious sacrament of God’s love. Creation is beautiful because God gazed on it, and when we look at the world in contemplation we encounter the loving actions of God. In the early part of the book, John presents creation as a reflection of God’s loving presence, where the woods and thickets are planted by the hand of the Beloved. Later, creation is no longer only a reflection but now there is identification: “My Beloved, the mountains.” Moreover, even though living in the times of the Inquisition, John does not seem willing to correct this, for now he truly is in love with the mountains, the lonely wooded valleys, and so on. For John this is due to the fact that the Son identified with the world in the Incarnation (C. 5.4, 37.1).

As we look on the world today, we see God’s wisdom and judgment in the wonders of all around us. “God created all things with remarkable ease and brevity, and in them he left some trace of who he is” (C. 5.1). The world gives us illumination concerning God. Sometimes God’s creation is so awesome that there is often an “I-don’t-know-what” behind the communication (C. 8.1). “[I]n the living contemplation and knowledge of creatures the soul sees such fullness of graces, powers, and beauty with which God has endowed them that seemingly all are arranged in wonderful beauty and natural virtue” (C. 6.1). The world calls us to God and urges us to appreciate the hidden presence of love that surrounds us.

 

SPIRITUAL CANTICLE: KEY THEMES–SHARING IN GOD’S BEAUTY

 

Every page of the Spiritual Canticle celebrates beauty. The bride rejoices in all aspects of creation, the mountains, lonely wooded valleys, strange islands, and so on. John shares with the bride the prayer of St. Francis, “My God and all things,” for she feels that all things are God (C. 14-15.5). John also sees God’s beauty in people, “Oh, then, soul, most beautiful of all creatures” (C. 1.7). For John, sin is the absence of beauty, and he looks at it with sadness rather than being judgmental. The spiritual journey is God’s progressive revelation of divine life to the bride, and she immerses herself more and more in the knowledge of her Lover. John shares his knowledge of this journey with his readers, fully aware that “not even they who receive these communications” are able to “describe. . . the understanding [God] gives to loving souls in whom he dwells” (C. Prologue.1). He agrees with theologians and philosophers that we know God primarily through the divine attributes, and he lists them in both the Ascent and the Living Flame (A. 2. 26.3, F. 3.2). “God in his unique and simple being is all the powers and grandeurs of his attributes. He is almighty, wise, and good; and he is merciful, just, powerful and loving, etc.; and he is the other infinite attributes and powers of which we have no knowledge” (F. 3.2). In the journey the bride not only knows these qualities of God but experiences them vitally, penetrating their meaning for her life. Mystics rarely add to the traditional list of divine attributes, but John singles out one attribute that was very special to him—divine beauty. He uses this word to describe God, always using the noun form hermosura (beauty) rather than the adjective hermoso (beautiful). This unusual description is not used analogically from the beauty of nature, but rather is clearly intended to refer to the inner being of God. Thus, the bride asks God “to show her his beauty, his divine essence” (C. 11.2). So, for John beauty is a divine attribute equivalent to the divine essence.

John's monastery in Segovia

John’s monastery in Segovia

In two passages John seems swept off his feet when he thinks of God’s beauty. In one of them he uses the word “beauty” twenty-four times in a single paragraph (C. 36.5) and in the other six times in four lines (C. 11.10). Mother Francisca de la Madre de Dios testified that on one of his visits to Beas, sometime in 1582-1584, John was carried away by the thought of the beauty of God and wrote five additional stanzas of the Spiritual Canticle on the beauty of God (36-40). People who study the mystics refer to the constant repetition of a concept as “mystical obsession.” In this case, John seems so overwhelmed by the thought of God’s beauty that it could be part of his own original experience of God.

Even in the early illuminative phase of contemplation the bride seeks the presence of God and identifies it as beauty, longing “to see him in his divine being and beauty.” In response to her longings, “God communicates to her some semi-clear glimpses of his divine beauty” (C. 11.4). This intensifies her longing for more intimate presence, but with this comes the awareness that such a vision is not possible, for human nature cannot endure such a revelation in this life. Thus, the bride cries “may the vision of your beauty be my death” (C. 11.16); she is willing to die to have the vision of God’s beauty. In the meantime she affirms her faith “which contains and hides the image and the beauty of her Beloved” (C. 12.1), just a sketch of the reality. She experiences God’s beauty all around her (C. 24.6) and longs to see herself in the beauty of God (C. 37.1). Her lovesickness climaxes in the ecstatic cry for union in eternity: “Let us rejoice, Beloved, and let us go forth to behold ourselves in your beauty” (C. v.36).

Icon of the Spiritual Canticle

Icon of the Spiritual Canticle

SPIRITUAL CANTICLE–KEY THEMES 6: Romantic love

John proclaims divine love with great tenderness that uses human love as its point of departure. In the Spiritual Canticle John of the Cross describes the growing relationship of two lovers. The poem is full of intimacy, passion, intensity, sensualness, and a longing for union—all of which take hold of the reader. It is not only that in reading it we can think of our intimate relationship to God but we can also think of our passionate desire and intimate longing for our own lover. Arthur Symmons summarize what several have implied, “This monk can give lessons to lovers.” There is a profound affective sensuous dimension to John’s poetry. He could not write like he does without feeling as we do when we read it. Clearly, in spite of his emphasis on purification, John does not propose the destruction of sense but the total unification of affectivity towards God. He also indicates that we rediscover sense refined at the end of purification. Was John totally detached from the sensory pleasure of his work? When we witness such clumsy and selfish approaches to love today, it is refreshing to read the sensitive, delicate, considerate, and, yes, sensual and passionate approaches he describes and suggests.

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There is no explicit religious language in the poem. It is a poem about lovers. In his commentary he gives profound religious explanations but intertwined are comments about the approaches of lovers to each other. Here is a short selection of his many comments.

“Lovers are said to have their hearts stolen or seized by the object of their love” (C. 9.5).

“[S]he affectionately calls him here the light of her eyes, just as a lover would call her loved one the light of her eyes in order to show her affection” (C. 10.8).

“Supper affords lovers refreshment, satisfaction, and love” (C. 14-15.28).

“[G]irls attract lovers to themselves by their affection and grace” (C. 18.4).

“Anyone truly in love will let all other things go in order to come closer to the loved one” (C. 29.10).

“New lovers are comparable to new wine. . . .These new lovers find their strength in the savor of love.” (C. 25.10).

“Now then, the old lovers . . . are like old wine . . . these lovers taste the sweetness of the wine of love” (C. 25.11).

“Strange it is, this property of lovers, that they like to enjoy each other’s companionship alone” (C.36.1)

“The reason they desire to commune with each other alone is that love is a union between two alone” (C. 36.1).

“For lovers cannot be satisfied without feeling that they love as much as they are loved” (C. 38.3).

The first thing that John teaches lovers is to value love alone above all else. This will imply risk, but God’s love of us is such that God is willing to take a risk with us. Once a commitment is made then one’s capacity for love depends on the exclusive and integrated focus of every aspect of one’s life. Love implies total self-surrender to one’s lover; it is never stationary but always in movement—a long journey in which love matures gradually. Together they find “mutual refreshment and renewal in love” (C. 13.2).

In the evening of life you will be judged on love.

John knows the importance between lovers of keeping a diligent watch over one’s heart. At the beginning of the poem the bride sees in herself a lot of conscious and unconscious resistance to God’s love and illumination and needs the purification of false loves and attachments (C. 1.1). In searching for her beloved she refuses to digress (C. 3.5), nor be tempted by enemies of her single-hearted pursuit (C. 3.6-7). As she gets closer to her Beloved she still keeps in check “many various kinds of images . . . brought to the memory and phantasy and many appetites and inclinations . . . stirred up in the sensory part” (C. 16.4). She longs for her heart to be carefully centered on her Beloved and to resist the negative drying up of interest that comes with “the foxes” (sensory movements) (C. v.16), the “deadening north wind” (dryness) (C. v.17), or the “girls of Judea” (lower affections) (C. v. 18). Once she enters spiritual marriage Aminadab (the devil) no longer appears, the siege is stopped (appetites and passions), and the cavalry descends (all bodily senses are controlled) (C. v. 40). A diligent watch over one’s heart helps the bride to maintain an exclusive focus on her Lover. “Deny your desires and you will find what your heart longs for” (S. 15).

Lovers always find it is difficult to be away from each other and also they often feel unworthy of each other when they are together. They savor the pain of both absence and presence. “Beholding that the bride is wounded with love for him, because of her moan he also is wounded with love for her. Among lovers, the wound of one is a wound for both” (C. 13.9). Prior to spiritual betrothal the “wounds” of love of the bride are mentioned twenty-five times. These experiences of pain at the Lover’s absence feel like a fire of love, enflamed within her (C. 1.17), and she tells him she is dying without him, wants nothing but him alone, feels unhealthy and incomplete without him, feels he has stolen her heart and nothing else matters anymore. Through these purifying wounds her love becomes impatient, burning, ardent, intense, and vehement. This purification becomes a progressive surrender to love. As the bride in the Song of Songs (8:6-7), the bride here indicates that nothing can quench love, neither floods drown it; she clearly wants her Lover as a seal upon her soul, for love is as strong as death.

Lovers want total self-gift from each other; partial gift is not what lovers want to give nor want to receive. They seek from each other what the psalms call “steadfast love,” that is “precious,” and “better than life” (Pss 36, 63, 89). In the Spiritual Canticle the bride tells her Lover do not hide, do not send me any more messengers, wholly surrender yourself, how can I endure not living where you live. She insists – carry me off, cure my love-sickness, extinguish my pain from your absence, reveal your presence. She sees her Lover’s gifts and signs of his presence everywhere—everything reminds her of him and speaks of his love.

Beautiful gardens in Segovia

Beautiful gardens in Segovia

She rests in his delight, finds her bed is in flower, enters the inner wine cellar of love, loses interest in all else, gives herself totally to him, and now she wounds him with her love. She has found her longed-for mate, finds love in solitude with him, and discovers her Lover in new ways never before imagined.

KEY THEMES IN THE SPIRITUAL CANTICLE 5: LOVE AND SELF-SURRENDER

One of the key themes in the Spiritual Canticle is the dedicated vision of love and surrender. John of the Cross gives a wonderful portrait of this as he develops the stages of spiritual betrothal and spiritual marriage. Let us look at some of his ideas and for those who have the time I have given some of his wonderful sayings from The Spiritual Canticle for extra reading.

Spiritual betrothal is a time of deeper love and mutual surrender; the two lovers feel each other’s pain, share ever deeper communications, appreciate each other’s longings, show mutual gratitude for graces and gifts, and yearn for union. The bride develops “a singular and intense love for God,” and “his absence is a singular and intense torment for her” (C. 17.1). In this growth of love and self-surrender “a singular fortitude and a very sublime love are also needed for so strong and intimate an embrace from God” (C. 20-21.1). Even before spiritual marriage she gives her love and surrender to her Bridegroom (C. 22.5).

Spiritual marriage is the time of mutual strong love and surrender. God shows the soul genuine love, the tenderness and truth of love, supreme and generous love. The bride is “dissolved in love” and “she makes a complete surrender of herself.” “[T]his mutual surrender of God and the soul is made in this union” (C. 27.2). “In this stanza the bride tells of the mutual surrender made in this spirit of espousal between the soul and God . . . joined by the communication he made of himself to her, . . . and by the complete surrender she made of herself to him, keeping nothing back for herself” (C. 27.3). The bride’s total surrender is caused by God, it is a gift to the bride of the necessary purity, perfection, and self dedication needed for total surrender (C. 27.6). Her surrender in loving union includes the surrender of her soul and its faculties so that they focus only on love of God and what pleases God. She surrenders to a consuming love and her every expression becomes an act of love. The bride puts it this way: “This is like saying that now all this work is directed to the practice of love of God, that is: All the ability of my soul and body . . . move in love and because of love. Everything I do I do with love, and everything I suffer I suffer with the delight of love” (C. 28.8).

The Bridegroom and bride now enjoy mutuality in love and in self-surrender, enjoying each other’s love. “God not only values this love of hers because he sees that it is alone, but also cherishes it because he sees that it is strong. . . . [T]his is why he loved her so much; he saw that her love was strong . . . alone and without other loves” (C. 31.5). Transformed in love, her love is now God’s love in her. She is united to God’s strong love for her, and “her love for him is as strong and perfect as his love for her” (C. 38.3). This is what she was searching for and what God wanted of her too.

KEY THEMES IN THE SPIRITUAL CANTICLE: 3–NURTURING DESIRE

 

We should always identify the desires of our lives. Desire is the human response to what will make us complete. It shows us the direction of a pilgrimage we undertake to find fulfillment, to find ourselves, to find the love for which we were created. This yearning within us cries out, “show me what my soul has been seeking” (C. v.38). Once we identify the desire of life, it becomes the motivating force for all we do.

As we pursue desire with single-minded dedication, we must first of all purify our desires. Our desires define us. We seek something or someone so intensely it takes the place of God. When we abandon all false desires, false gods, we lose ourselves and find our true selves (C. v.29). We must undertake this journey with excitement and enthusiasm and let nothing digress or distract us. “A characteristic of the desires of love is that all deeds and words unconformed with what the will loves will weary, tire, annoy, and displease the soul as she beholds her desire goes unfulfilled” (C. 10.5). Some grow weary in this journey and many abandon the effort. We must follow our desire unceasingly, with deliberate and intense longing.

Let your heart be drawn by God. Desire is placed in our hearts by God who longs to satisfy our desire more than we do. God is the prime Lover who has placed this yearning within us. He calls us personally, fills the world with reminders of his love, illumines us, and transforms us in contemplation.

Appreciate the signposts that direct to desire. We are immersed in God’s love. All around us are signs that help us clarify and intensify our desire. We see traces of the love we seek in creation, in God’s works, wonders, and decrees, in other human beings and in the spiritual world—all reminding us of the intensity of desire for the source of all this love. These signs of our Lover’s desire nurture our hearts, constantly communicate to us, and let us know where true love lies. Even our own initial desires, and more so as they grow, act as messengers showing us both what our hearts desire and also what the Beloved longs for. This illumination from creatures produces immense appreciation and love of God and a resulting intense impatient love.

Only a life of love satisfies desire. John makes us aware of deep desires that we have, a hunger that cannot be satisfied except we make this journey of love. Following our desire means learning how to love until we find “the perfection of love . . . [and] complete refreshment therein” (C. 9.7). As we follow our desire God teaches us to love with the very strength with which God loves us (C. 38.4).

A NEW BOOK ON JOHN OF THE CROSS: THE LIVING FLAME OF LOVE

Living_Flame_Cover_for_Kindle

Announcing my latest book in a new series on the works of the John of the Cross – The
Living Flame of Love is the final stage in John’s beautiful, expansive vision of love in
spiritual marriage.
Reader’s comments about this series of introductions to each of
John’s major works emphasize they are “simple, clear, yet profound.”
If you wish to deepen your own spiritual life or engage in the spiritual
guidance of others, you’ll find these books helpful in developing
enthusiasm and the contemplative spirit needed for such a journey.
John’s integrated approach applies to our time. I encourage you to
be immersed in this journey of love with the Holy Spirit as guide. This
book on the Living Flame of Love, with its theological and spiritual analysis of John’s
teachings, can be a wonderful aid.
Sincerely,
Leonard Doohan
You can purchase this book at Amazon.com

Contemporary Spirituality for Christian Adults

There is a great excitement and enthusiasm among so many people today to deepen their knowledge of their faith and strengthen their spiritual commitment by pursuing the priorities of Jesus. This yearning of so many was met by the teachings and renewal of the Second Vatican Council which attracted people of all walks of life to a more responsible and active dedication to their faith after decades of fostered passivity. After the Second Vatican Council many believers read books and studied their faith. They attended workshops, conferences, courses, and retreats. There was lots of enthusiasm and intense desire to know more about faith and spirituality. We had an informed laity. Unfortunately this is no longer the case today. Much of this enthusiasm has waned, as many Church officials have returned to a pre-Conciliar approach to theology and spirituality and focused more on social-sexual issues rather then evangelical challenges. A Church with these emphases has no future.

A new spirit is stirring in the Church. We must overcome the failures of the past and prepare ourselves for a future of growth and responsibility. Let us rekindle spiritual insight, accept our spiritual destiny, and refocus on the essential teaching of salvation. While many have left the institutional churches, and sadly may never return, perhaps the challenge to renewal of Pope Francis may re-attract them to the essentials of Christian commitment.

The Church  needs to refocus on informed believers, giving them opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the essential teachings of faith and nurture their spirituality. I have written two short books that I believe can help you nurture your faith and spirituality and enable you to be a serious Christian presence in the contemporary world.

These books are short and divided into even shorter sections, so that you can read one section a week to nurture your spiritual life. They include questions for personal reflection. Take an e-book with you on your daily travels and read a section now and again. It will make all the difference to you in your Christian commitment. Form a discussion group around the idea of each book.

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1. Ten Strategies to Nurture Our Spiritual Lives: Don’t stand still—nurture the life within you.

This book presents ten key steps or strategies to support and express the faith of those individuals who seek to deepen their spirituality through personal commitment and group growth. These ten key components of spirituality enable dedicated adults to bring out the meaning of their faith and to facilitate their spiritual growth. It offers a program of reflection, discussion, planning, journaling, strategizing, and sharing.

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2. Rediscovering Jesus’ Priorities.

This book urges readers to look again at Jesus’ teachings and identify the major priorities. It is a call to rethink the essential components of a living and vital Christianity and a challenge to rediscover the basic values Jesus proclaimed. Use the book for a short meditation and personal examination, as a self-guided retreat to call yourself to renewed dedication to Jesus’ call, or for group discussion and renewed application of Jesus’ teachings.

 

Books are available from amazon.com/author/leonarddoohan